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U.S. Department of Justice
Office of Community Oriented Policing Services
The COPS Office is the component of the U.S. Department of Justice responsible for advancing the practice of community policing by the nation’s state, local, territorial, and tribal law enforcement agencies through information and grant resources. In an effort to provide the best information by the field and for the field, we are pleased to introduce our three Law Enforcement (LE) Fellows for 2021. The LE Fellows possess in-depth knowledge of police operations, policies, and procedures and have an interest in national-level policy and current issues facing law enforcement agents in the United States. Their on-the-ground experience strengthens the COPS Office’s capabilities in the development, delivery, and management of technical assistance to law enforcement, community members, and other criminal justice stakeholders. This article features an interview with one of the three LE Fellows for 2021: John Nowels (JN) of the Spokane County Sheriff’s Office.
Interviewer: What is your current rank and posting? How long have you been with the department?
JN: I work for the Spokane County Sheriff’s Office and currently serve as the Undersheriff of the Investigative and Intelligence Divisions. I oversee all our detectives, analysts, forensic personnel, and our Regional Safe Streets Task Force.
I am in my 24th year as a Deputy Sheriff. Some days it seems longer than that, but most days I feel like I was a brand-new rookie in my training car yesterday. I suppose the key is not acting like the brand-new cop 24 years later.
Interviewer: Why did you join up?
JN: I did not have any law enforcement officers in my family. However, my parents raised me and my siblings with a focus on service to others. They spent a lot of time volunteering for service projects in church and strongly encouraged (sometimes through coercion) their children to serve as well. I believe that foundation of service is probably why I eventually ended up in law enforcement and enjoying it so much. Our family did have a friend at church who was an FBI agent: I was always interested in the stories he would tell, mostly because I found those more engaging than the Sunday School lessons he was teaching.
I started college with the plan of becoming a chemical engineer. I was into my third semester of chemistry classes (not performing exceptionally well, I might add) when I realized I didn’t enjoy chemistry at all. I had a friend in my chemistry classes who felt the same way and he mentioned he was looking at some criminal justice classes his friends were taking. I asked him what criminal justice majors did, and he told me they became cops. I distinctly remember thinking, “You can go to college to be a cop?” So, I took a criminal justice class which I enjoyed way more than chemistry. The rest is history, so to speak.
Interviewer: What does community policing mean to you and why does it matter?
JN: Community policing means connecting with the people we serve in a meaningful way where a relationship of trust is the foundation for addressing crime and disorder through a partnership. This can look different depending on the community and will look different from one law enforcement agency to another.
Law enforcement officers must prepare themselves to use a myriad of techniques to engage these different communities to build trust. For example, take a particular geographic area or community suffering from high crime: one way police might resolve this issue is by undertaking face-to-face interactions on patrol and by talking to community members about who is committing the crime and developing actionable intelligence about who is committing it. Intelligence Led Policing (ILP) is a good community policing tool and relies on cops building relationships with the community they serve.
ILP doesn’t work when the community won’t talk. Community-oriented policing will have to look like a lot of outreach in these areas. This is where you see law enforcement working at community events as participants, not security. You see them involved in youth sports programs and participating in cultural activities. The community begins to see the police as people they can go to in times of need, and the police begin to listen to and understand the people they serve.
Community policing activities build trust. Mutual trust is the foundation of the police/community relationship and, really, the only path forward as our nation tackles some significant social issues.
Interviewer: After 24 years, you must have a few favorite stories.
JN: You have to laugh in this job, or it will eat you up. I remember one call for service I went on early in my career. I was in my Field Training car and had been on the job for about three months. We had been called to a gas station/mini-mart over a man who appeared homeless and possibly suffering from a mental illness. It was about 1:00 in the morning and he was disrupting the business.
When we got there, it was expected that I would contact the man as I was nearing the end of my training and should be able to handle this situation by myself. My trainer would act as my cover officer, but he spent the contact talking with a friend of his who showed up as “back up.”
It was clear from the beginning that the man was transient and was carrying a large bag with all his belongings. He was talking to himself about his thoughts being recorded by the CIA, for example. After conducting the usual officer safety stuff, I asked him what his name was and he said his name was, “The Holy Ghost.” I asked him if he had any identification and I kid you not, he produced a Washington State ID card showing him as The Holy Ghost. So, here I am having to run a name check over the radio, as a rookie, with a guy named The Holy Ghost.
I ran the name over the radio. As soon as I did, I saw my Training Officer’s head pop up over the top of the mini-mart’s candy aisle with a quizzical, but somewhat angry, look on his face. When radio quit laughing, they returned that his ID was clear and he had no warrants, showing my Training Officer that I wasn’t making the name up. After questioning the man about his name, he made it very clear that he, in fact, was The Holy Ghost, which is why he felt that the FBI and CIA were reading his thoughts. After determining he was no danger to himself or others, I gave him a ride to the next jurisdiction east. I personally met The Holy Ghost. And I gave him a ride to Idaho.
Sr. Program Analyst
Photo courtesy of the Spokane County Sheriff’s Office.
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